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“One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”: What does it really mean?

In the Creed, which orthodox protestants affirm throughout the world in common with the Catholic and Orthodox traditions (leaving aside the issue of the filioque), we proclaim that we believe in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”.  This is an article of faith for all Christians.  Whatever else the church is, it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  However, I wonder if a conversation might really be had about what this article of faith really means. 

 There are obviously a lot of problems with confessing this “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”.  Obviously there is the issue of how the church is “one” in any meaningful sense today, given the reality of Christian division and schism.  Just as problematic is the oft-glossed over confession of the church as holy.  What does this mean given the strong empirical evidence of the church’s manifest sinfulness?  Catholicity is, of course, a similar problem.  Even more complexifying that question is the very definition of the term, which is hardly uncontested.  Apostolicity, likewise is a slippery term.  In what does apostolicity consist?  This is obviously a major issue between protestants and the rest of Christendom, but even within protestantism, what do we mean when we confess the church as apostolic?

I think that this article of faith is perhaps the least analyzed aspect of our creed, at least among protestants.  The problem with having the church as a confession of faith lies in the fact that the church is something tangible that can seemingly prove or disprove our confession – or at least lend credibility or incredibility to our claims about it.  So, what then should we say?  How can we confess the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” rightly?  What does it mean for us to confess this article of faith given the reality of the church as it exists in this age?

13 Comments

  1. Laura wrote:

    I am currently working through the four marks for one of the chapters in my ThM thesis. Unfortunately, it’s too early to come to conclusions, but I can recommend some theologians for readers in the Protestant realm. Barth (Church Dogmatics), Brunner (Dogmatics), and Berkhof (Systematic Theology) all have chapters on the four marks. Edmund Clowney also has a chapter in his book The Church.

    Friday, September 28, 2007 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  2. wtm wrote:

    Just a few instinctual moves:

    (1) These four marks are a confession of faith, so screw empiricism. This is what is true of the Church on the basis of God’s activity in and through it. We ought to work at making our human activity correspond to it as much as possible.

    (2) “One” – Ephesians 4.5, ‘There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’ The one faith and one baptism bit, and also the mark of oneness, is derivative from our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

    (3) “Holy” – Set apart. For what? Mission. The Great Commission in Matthew 28: Go, baptize, teach.

    (4) “Catholic” – This is related to the confession of oneness, but there is a distinction. Where oneness deals with the unity of a group of people, those who are holy, catholicity makes it clear that this unity knows no geographical boundaries.

    (5) “Apostolic” – Tied to holiness. The Church is Holy in that it is set apart for its mission. This mission, however, was given to the Apostles directly, and derivatively to the disciples that they were commissioned to make. The Apostolicity of the Church refers objectively to the true Church’s faithfulness to the Apostles’ teaching (given to us in Scripture) and to their mission. We are called to pursue this faithfulness.

    Saturday, September 29, 2007 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  3. Ben wrote:

    1. Why should any Protestant hold the Nicene council to be important besides as a historical event?

    2. What did the writers of the Nicene creed mean by these statements? What was their understanding of Apostolic?

    3. Which of those marks are things to be desired, which are things that are necessary to be considered part of the Church? In other words, is “One” a requirement or a goal?

    4. Are we to figure out how to reconcile this situation of many ecclesial groups to our creedal statements? Or are we to examine those groups and decide which actually fulfills the requirements?

    I would say that the Catholic Church is the most fitting candidate for being the real One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church– is that out of bounds?

    Saturday, September 29, 2007 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Travis,

    I like the sound of “screw empiricism”, but doesn’t that get you off the hook a little too easily? Just saying that since such and such is a “confession of faith”, is it therefore beyond any tangible critique? I’m not fan of the enlightenment, but I don’t think we can just say screw you to any criticsm of our faith simply by virtue of it being faith.

    I fear you fall into a Platonic dualism here between the church “as it really is” by virtue of God’s action it (where is this taking place again?) and the church “as we experience it in history” which is somehow less real or lacking in ontological weight. That sounds pretty dangerous to me.

    Monday, October 1, 2007 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  5. wtm wrote:

    The church “as it really is” by virtue of God’s action is a reference to none other than Jesus Christ, whose body (earthly-historical form) the church is. But, while we can say that Jesus Christ is the church, we cannot say that the church is Jesus Christ. There is a very strong assymetry, and the identity works on from one direction.

    It doesn’t get me off the hook too easily because I affirm that we must constantly work to find news ways of bearing witness to that which the church is called to be. But, this does not mean that we need to worry about what how an empiricist might interpret the marks. In other words, they are not marks of a true church that help us distinguish it from a false church (since no churches fulfill the criteria of these marks). Rather, they the telos of all churches.

    Monday, October 1, 2007 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  6. wtm wrote:

    P.S. I’m no Platonist. :-)

    Monday, October 1, 2007 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I’m still not biting. What, in your view is the relationship between actual congregations (churches) and the confession of “the Church” in the creed?

    Maybe I’m working too hard to exegete Nicea here, but I don’t see how a teleological reading works here. When we read the creed it sounds like we’re saying ‘this is what the church is’. It sounds like you’re saying Jesus is the church, and we should be conformed to Christ. That may be a legitimate theological statement, but how is it really faithful to the Creed?

    Also I’m concerned when you say we need to constantly look for how to bear witness to what the church is called to be. Shouldn’t we be being what the church is called to be?

    Monday, October 1, 2007 at 6:41 pm | Permalink
  8. wtm wrote:

    “Also I’m concerned when you say we need to constantly look for how to bear witness to what the church is called to be. Shouldn’t we be being what the church is called to be?”

    How do you think we bear witness to it? The point is, this isn’t an empirical description but an eschatological one.

    “Maybe I’m working too hard to exegete Nicea here..,”

    Maybe. :-)

    “When we read the creed it sounds like we’re saying ‘this is what the church is’”

    Yeah, eschatologically and Christologically.

    “What, in your view is the relationship between actual congregations (churches) and the confession of “the Church” in the creed?”

    Each local congregation participates in the eschatological and Christological reality that is the true being of the Church.

    Monday, October 1, 2007 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Sorry, I think you can’t avoid being Platonic here. This whole busines of local congregation participating in the “reality that is the true being of the church” seems to put you squarely in the middle of a Platonic seperation of the ideal from the particular. On this read, no congregation is “one holy catholic and apostolic”, rather they just participate hazily in the “reality” of those things which is somewhere else. I just don’t think you can honestly say that that’s what the Creed is trying to say and asking us to believe.

    And what does it mean to you to say that the marks of the Creed are eschatological? If you mean that the church is what it is only because of the eschatological action of God in Christ’s death and resurrection, then fine. If you’re saying that the description of the church as “one holy catholic and apostolic” is something that will only be instantiated in the consummation then I think you are clearly interpreting the Creed in a way the does violence to what the writers of the Creed clearly were trying to communicate.

    Monday, October 1, 2007 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  10. wtm wrote:

    “Sorry, I think you can’t avoid being Platonic here. This whole busines of local congregation participating in the “reality that is the true being of the church” seems to put you squarely in the middle of a Platonic seperation of the ideal from the particular.”

    There may be a formal similarity, but I’m not Platonic because I don’t set this up as a metaphysical description of how things are. That is, I’m not saying that there is this perfect ‘form’ called ‘Church’ which each local congregation is an instantiation of, and which each local congregation participates in by virtue of its mere existence. What I am saying is much more like Barth’s notion that our true being exists “extra nos” in Jesus Christ. I’m simply applying this in an ecclesiological manner.

    “On this read, no congregation is “one holy catholic and apostolic”, rather they just participate hazily in the “reality” of those things which is somewhere else.”

    It isn’t “hazy” in any sense. There is an ontological participation (koinonia) because there is an ontological connection between Christ and every believer. Furthermore, there is a spiritual participation (koinonia) by the work of the Holy Spirit in uniting us to Christ. Third, there is a moral participation (koinonia) born of the spiritual form which occurs when bear witness to Jesus Christ by bring out life into correspondence with him.

    “I just don’t think you can honestly say that that’s what the Creed is trying to say and asking us to believe.”

    If that is the case, it doesn’t really both me. Authorial intent is an important part of the historical enterprise, but it doesn’t restrict what I can then do with the material. Besides, I’m not so sure that they might not have been gesturing in these directions.

    “If you’re saying that the description of the church as “one holy catholic and apostolic” is something that will only be instantiated in the consummation then I think you are clearly interpreting the Creed in a way the does violence to what the writers of the Creed clearly were trying to communicate.”

    Again, judging on the basis of authorial intent – which, by the way and not to be a jerk, you haven’t made an argument for.

    The “extra nos” being of the church, Jesus Christ, which is operative at the ontological level though we don’t live up to it (being and existence fall apart for we humans), and which is constantly approximated by the work of the Holy Spirit insofar as the church in space and time corresponds to its true being in Christ, will be revealed and corresponded to in the final fulfillment of the parousia.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 3:52 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    I don’t think I have to have a rigid hermeneutic of authorial intent (I don’t) to say that moving from “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church” to “I believe that churches participate in these qualities in some indeterminate manner which will only be realized eschatologically” is to propound a pretty novel interpretation.

    If you feel free to read the Creed in an unrestricted way, then you can believe it to mean whatever you want. Frankly, this all sounds far to ad hoc and autonomous a way of engaging the tradition.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  12. wtm wrote:

    “…participate in these qualities in some indeterminate manner…”

    I thought that I got pretty determinate in laying out three forms of participation.

    “…is to propound a pretty novel interpretation”

    I don’t buy that it is novel. On the contrary, I would argue that it is consonant with numerous biblical and more broadly theological themes.

    “…you feel free to read the Creed in an unrestricted way…this all sounds far to ad hoc and autonomous a way of engaging the tradition.”

    I don’t read it in an unrestricted way. Nor is this an ad hoc and autonomous way of engaging the tradition. In fact, I’m deep in the tradition by the very fact that I’m trying to move the conversation forward about these things rather than simply restating what the authors of the creed would have meant. And, if pressed, I’m supremely confident that I could marshal authorities – both Scriptural and traditional – for my position.

    Just because I’m reconfiguring things in such a way that the precedence is taken away from the Roman church is no reason to same I’m engaging the tradition in an ‘unrestricted’ or improperly ‘autonomous’ way.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden,

    With Travis, I think we have to read the creed christologically. Is the creed any different than the following statements in Scripture?

    Gal. 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

    Eph. 2:14: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

    Col. 1:17, 3:3: “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. … for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

    All of these passages (and more) say something radical: namely, that there is an ontological unity of humanity (even of the whole cosmos) in the person of Jesus Christ. However, it is not the case that this unity is empirically verifiable. Division still reigns between Jews and Gentiles, between men and women, between Christians even. But it is an ontological fact on the basis of faith that such division is really “nothingness” in the light of the person of Jesus Christ who accomplished the reconciliation of the world.

    Our ecclesiological confessions are no different than our cosmic and anthropological confessions. The church is one in the same way that humanity is one — in Christ Jesus. Is this manifest on a concrete level here and now? No. Is it true, in a christological (and therefore eschatological) sense? Yes.

    We need to remember Luther’s statement that the church is the greatest of sinners. This is true. But the church is also holy. How is this possible? Because the church’s identity is in Christ. We can and must say the same about each person. In ourselves we are sinful, but in Christ we are holy. Hence Luther’s axiom: simul iustus et peccator. Our holiness and unity is “outside ourselves,” in the person of Christ, not “in ourselves.” This is true not only of the church but of humanity in general. Christ is the ontological center and ground for all of our theological confessions.

    Wednesday, October 3, 2007 at 8:26 am | Permalink

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